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What does it cost to blur the line between fiction and reality?
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When I was little, I never understood why movies about real people featured the following disclaimer: “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” It was a blatant lie. Of course Elliott Ness in The Untouchables wasn’t made-up. Neither was Howard Hughes in The Aviator.
So why does that disclaimer exist? Because of a series of bad decisions that can be traced back to – wait for it – Rasputin and the fall of the Russian empire.
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With a Friend Like This, Who Needs Enemies?
This isn’t a story about Rasputin or his murder. But to understand what happened later, we need to start in pre-revolutionary Russia.
In October of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra met Grigori Efimovich Rasputin. He was a wandering holy man who claimed to have spiritual gifts, including the power to heal.
But he wasn’t the type of holy man who led a chaste, austere life. Nope. He drank and he chased women. He was arrogant and he was coarse. He believed you had to sin before you could be saved. Combine this behavior with a hypnotic personal magnetism and Rasputin made waves everywhere he went – including at the imperial court.
Over the next few years, Rasputin earned the tsarina’s trust because of his ability to ease the pain caused by her son’s hemophilia. He appeared to stop the boy’s bleeding, swelling, and pain often just by praying at his bedside. Alexandra believed he was absolutely necessary for her son’s survival, no matter what anyone else said about him.
But since her son’s illness was a secret, no one on the outside could understand what Alexandra saw in him. What was she thinking, letting this creepy guy in the same room with her daughters?
For a family that already struggled with the concept of public relations, Rasputin only made the situation worse.
World War I magnified every problem Russia already had.
Shocked and angered by over five million wartime losses as of 1916, the family members left behind questioned the country’s leadership. (Sumpf) Who was making these terrible decisions? Why were their sons, fathers, and brothers sent into battle without shoes or guns? Why was there no food or fuel left for those at home? Who let things get this bad?
Government ministers came and went, appointed and quickly dismissed as, one by one, they failed to turn the war around or stabilize the economy. Most people believed Rasputin was manipulating the tsar and tsarina into making these terrible choices. As a result, everyone from aristocrats to soldiers to factory workers gossiped about his influence.
Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, later described the situation like this: “Rasputin…– it was like a refrain, his mistakes, his shocking personal conduct, his mysterious power. This power was tremendous; it was like dust, enveloping all our world, eclipsing the sun. How could so pitiful a wretch throw so vast a shadow? It was inexplicable, baffling, almost incredible.” (Marie, 248-9)
Someone had to fix this situation, and if the tsar couldn’t or wouldn’t get rid of him, well, there were others who would.
Prince Felix Yusupov took it upon himself to solve Russia’s Rasputin problem. He was the sole heir to one of the richest noble families in imperial Russia and he knew Rasputin personally.
In 1914, he’d married Nicholas II’s only niece, Princess Irina Alexandrovna. This brought him even closer to the imperial family, where he saw firsthand the wedge Rasputin was driving between the tsar and tsarina and the rest of the imperial family.
So he gathered a small circle of conspirators, including his best friend, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and Lieutenant Ivan Sukhotin, an officer in a prestigious guards regiment. Later, they brought in Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the Duma who had spoken out against Rasputin, and Dr. Stanislaus Lazovert.
In December of 1916, they put their plan into action. Felix invited Rasputin to his home, the Moika Palace, on the pretext that Rasputin would finally get to meet Felix’s wife. Irina wasn’t even in Petrograd at the time, but Rasputin didn’t know that.
The murder itself is like a game of Clue: was he killed by cyanide in the poisoned cakes and wine glasses, the shot by Felix to his heart, two additional gunshots fired by Purishkevich, the beating Felix gave him with a steel-and-leather club, or the icy waters of the river they dumped him into?
All that matters for this particular story is that the murder was discovered immediately.
Felix and Dmitri bore the brunt of the tsar’s anger. Nicholas II exiled Felix to his estate in central Russia, and sent Dmitri to Persia with the army. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna later wrote that in the aftermath, Felix seemed intoxicated by his role in the murder. Dmitri, on the other hand, felt remorse and regret.
And as it turns out, Dmitri was right. Rasputin’s death wasn’t enough to prevent a revolution. Just ten weeks after the murder, Nicholas II abdicated the throne and Russia collapsed into revolution and civil war.
Felix and Irina fled Russia in 1919. They settled in London and then Paris, selling artwork, jewels, and trinkets to get by.
In 1927, Felix published a book that described Rasputin’s murder. Purishkevich also published a memoir, and Felix addressed the subject again in his memoir, Lost Splendor. None of the other conspirators ever spoke publicly about the murder. There are still unanswered questions about how accurate those published accounts are, but all we need to know for this story is that Felix Yusupov came away as the man known as the murderer of Rasputin.
Hooray for Hollywood
In the early 1930s, American playwright and poet Mercedes de Acosta took a screenwriting gig in Hollywood with RKO Studios.
The daughter of aristocratic parents, she had already traveled extensively and made friends with actors, artists, and writers across the globe. When her RKO contract got cancelled, her friend Greta Garbo talked to MGM studio boss, Irving Thalberg, about hiring Mercedes to write for a script especially for her.
Thalberg agreed, and Mercedes wrote a story that called for Garbo to disguise herself as a boy. Thalberg refused to put the glamorous Garbo on screen in a very unglamorous disguise.
According to Mercedes, he said, “I am in this business to make money on films and I won’t have this one ruined.” He killed the script and Mercedes was once again out of work.
But it wasn’t long before Thalberg came back. This time, he asked Mercedes to bring him as much information as she could about Rasputin’s life. Seems like a pretty random request, right?
But Thalberg was on a mission. He wanted to make a movie with all three of the famous Barrymore siblings: Lionel, Ethel, and John.
They had never appeared on screen together and it would be box office gold if he pulled it off. But since they were siblings, the movie couldn’t be a love story. So Thalberg went digging in the MGM archives and realized they had bought the rights to a novel, Rasputin by Alfred Klabund. Now, Thalberg needed Mercedes to provide research and, eventually, a story.
Mercedes took the job.
Thalberg didn’t know it, but she’d actually met Felix Yusupov years ago in Paris, through their mutual friend Prince Agoutinsky. One night in Paris, Felix had told the story of Rasputin’s murder – so now, Mercedes contacted him and asked for more detail. She asked if Irina had ever met Rasputin. No, said Felix – he made sure she’d never even laid eyes on him.
After some initial research, Mercedes suggested the movie focus less on Rasputin’s life and more on his interaction with the imperial family. Thalberg agreed and asked her to start writing.
He also asked her to include a scene where Rasputin tried to seduce Irina. He said it had to be “very violent.” (de Acosta, 245) When Mercedes protested because that wasn’t historically accurate, Thalberg said, “Who cares? Putting this scene in gives strength to the whole plot.”
According to her memoir, she said, “But this is history. History in our own time with the people living who enacted it. Such a sequence would be absolutely inauthentic and probably libelous.”
Thalberg replied, “I don’t need you to tell me a lot of nonsense about what is libelous or what is not. I want this sequence in and that is all there is to it.”
But Mercedes didn’t give up. She wrote to Prince Agoutinsky and asked him to tell Felix about the script – including the proposed seduction scene – and ask how much she could use from what he’d told her.
When Agoutinsky replied, he said Felix didn’t mind if she used any of the tidbits he’d told her – but that she couldn’t mention Irina at all. If she did, Felix would sue.
Well, that’s that, thought Mercedes. She showed Thalberg Prince Agoutinsky’s reply, thinking it would get her off the hook.
Instead, Thalberg freaked out big time. He said the industry had to come first – over friends, over history, over everything. He tore up her contract right in front of her. For Mercedes, it was déjà vu – getting fired by Thalberg again for arguing with him over one specific scene in a script.
The Show Must Go On
By now, it was early 1932 and the clock was ticking for Irving Thalberg.
MGM already had John and Lionel Barrymore under contract, but Ethel was a theater actress with little interest in Hollywood.
He promised her that filming would be done by fall so she could return to the stage in New York. Ethel owed the IRS back taxes and needed the cash, so she agreed. “I don’t give a hang about the movies,” she later said, “but I supposed playing with Lionel and Jack would be amusing.” (Viera, 192)
When Ethel arrived in May, ready to start filming, there was just one small problem: they didn’t have a script. “Do you mean to tell me they haven’t got a story?” she asked. John told her, “They have six and don’t think any of them is good enough.” (Viera, 193)
It was true – they’d had multiple writers, but none of them had turned in what Thalberg was looking for. He really wanted screenwriter Charles MacArthur, but so far, MacArthur had refused the job.
So Ethel Barrymore marched over to the ranch MacArthur rented with his wife, actress Helen Hayes. She straight-up told him he was going to take the job. When MacArthur refused again, she had a tantrum, threatening to throw his lamp through the wall as she swore at him. Finally, MacArthur caved.
The MGM publicity department announced that the three Barrymores would appear together in a talkie about the so-called “Mad Monk” of Russia, Rasputin. They said Lionel would play Rasputin, but initial reports didn’t list a specific role for John or Ethel just yet. Later, they announced the Ethel would play Tsarina Alexandra and John would play Felix Yusupov. (Viera, 193)
Ethel asked for top billing…but she didn’t get it.
The studio gave that to John because they saw him as the most profitable Barrymore. His recent hits included Grand Hotel and Arsène Lupin, a name you’ll recognize if you’ve seen the recent adaptation on Netflix.
Writer Charles MacArthur worked on the new script as quickly as he could. But there were still problems with the story. Like Mercedes de Acosta, Ethel advised Irving Thalberg to nix the seduction scene – the Yusupovs were real people, she said, and they might not like seeing themselves depicted on screen in historically inaccurate scenes.
But Thalberg still wouldn’t listen. All he did was change Felix’s character’s name from the real-life Yusupov to the made-up Chegodieff. (Kobler, 280) But the line between truth and fiction on set was still hazy, which John Barrymore confirmed when he told interviewers his character was based on Felix. (Kobler, 280)
MacArthur finished the script in mid-July and shooting started on July 22 under director Charles Brabin.
But things did not go well.
According to a biography of Irving Thalberg, John Barrymore was drinking and Ethel had trouble adapting from the stage to a movie set with a camera and microphone. When Ethel accused director Charles Brabin of working too slowly and tried to get him replaced, he walked off the set. Thalberg replaced him with Richard Boleslavsky.
By the end of August 1932, after a full month of shooting, the movie was still a disaster. Fifteen story conferences still hadn’t fixed the script. (Viera, 195) So Thalberg and his producer, Bernie Hyman, shut down production and asked Charles MacArthur to do a rewrite. Twelve days later, they started filming again, with MacArthur revising scenes up to the day before they were filmed.
Ethel said things were so rushed that someone usually handed her a carbon copy of the final script – meaning the type with her lines was printed in reverse. “And would you like me to recite it backwards too?” she asked. (Viera, 195)
Ethel had strong feelings about her character. She claimed to have met Tsarina Alexandra in London through her friend, the duchess of Sutherland. (Kobler, 278) And she had zero problems contradicting the director to tell him exactly how Alexandra would have moved or spoken. “You forget,” she said, “I knew Her Majesty personally.” The frustrated crew began to call Ethel “Empress of all the Rushes.” (Viera, 196)
By early October, Ethel’s time was up, per her contract. They crammed the last of her scenes into three days of filming.
Even after she left, however, filming dragged on and on, drastically inflating the budget. Everyone with a calendar starting wondered if they’d make their release date of December 23. Stressed and burned out, the crew started calling the movie Disputin’.
But even that didn’t last. Late that fall, the studio changed the name of the movie from Rasputin to Rasputin and the Empress. Newspapers reported the change, referring to it as “a little useless.”
Luckily, the news wasn’t all bad. When the head of the research department saw a script that called for Rasputin to wear sandals, she rushed to the set to tell Lionel that detail was wrong. But when she got there, she saw that he’d ignored the script and worn boots, as the real Rasputin would have done. Lionel was an actor who did his homework.
The grueling shoot continued into November. At this point, Thalberg insisted on filming the seduction scene. He thought it would make Rasputin seem as evil as possible, as well as make the imperial family more sympathetic. They filmed it on November 12.
A month later, on December 12, shooting wrapped and the editors got to work – only 11 days before the premiere. At this point, producer Bernie Hyman decided the movie still needed a little something extra.
He added a prologue to the beginning that read: “This concerns the destruction of an empire, brought about by the mad ambitions of one man. A few of the characters are still alive. The rest met their death by violence.” (Acosta, 197)
This would prove to be a very expensive mistake.
And the Oscar Goes To…
The movie premiered as scheduled on December 23, 1932 at the Astor Theater in New York. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, it made a million dollars. But MGM’s general counsel wasn’t impressed. He said the movie “…stinks. Audiences won’t go near it.” (Kobler, 281) The take of $1 million also wasn’t super impressive considering it had cost twice that to make. (ibid)
The good news was that audiences generally liked the movie. So let’s pause for a quick description of what it was they saw.
In the film, a character named Princess Natasha – the emperor’s cousin – introduces Rasputin to the empress. Rasputin gains power at court, but Natasha’s fiancé, Prince Paul Chegodieff, believes he’s destroying Russia.
Paul attempts to shoot Rasputin, but it doesn’t work because Rasputin is wearing a protective vest. To get revenge, Rasputin puts Natasha in a trance and tells her, “We are going to punish Paul, you and I.” The movie didn’t show exactly what happened next, but according to the sources, in the U.S. version of the film, you can hear Natasha screaming in the background. Ashamed of what happened, Natasha tells Prince Paul that she’s no longer fit to be his wife.
Later, when Rasputin gets a little too touchy-feely with one the empress’s daughters, Natasha threatens to tell the empress.
Rasputin hypnotizes Natasha, but when Alexandra finds them, Natasha wakes up and tells her everything. She sends Rasputin away.
In the movie’s climax, Prince Paul and Rasputin have an epic fight scene.
Paul poisons Rasputin, beats him, and tosses him into the icy river, watching him sink below the surface. Nicholas exiles Paul and the empress asks him to take Natasha with him. They go to England while the imperial family eventually faces a firing squad.
The film’s reviews were mixed. The New York Herald’s critic wrote, “It achieves one feat that is not inconsiderable. It manages to libel even the despised Rasputin.” (Viera, 197)
The New York Times gave it a glowing review the day after release. Reviewer Mordaunt Hall praised the film, especially the fight scene between “Prince Chegodieff, as Prince Youssoupoff is known here, and the ‘Mad’ Monk…” But a week later, the same reviewer wrote: “…it might have been preferable if the producers had foregone the temptation to deviate from actual occurrences…”
Photoplay magazine’s review struck a similar note when it said, “…you can’t miss this offering. We urge this in spite of liberties taken with history.” (Napley, 63)
To add insult to injury, none of the Barrymores received acting nominations for that year’s Academy Awards. The movie’s only nod was for Best Original Story by screenwriter Charles MacArthur.
Yeah, I kid you not…best original story.
I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
As we’ve already seen, Mercedes de Acosta told Felix Yusupov what was happening before the movie ever got made. And Felix didn’t waste any time. In early January of 1932 – before the script was finalized or filming had even started – his American lawyers wrote to MGM, claiming the movie was libel.
MGM replied on January 19, saying nope, don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no libel here. And the truth was…MGM was probably right. Felix had killed Rasputin, by his own admission. So a movie that depicted what he himself stated to be the truth probably wasn’t libel.
So Felix tried a different tactic. His American lawyers wrote to MGM again, this time saying the movie libeled Irina. They said the character of Princess Natasha was a thinly veiled version of her, and because of the seduction scene, they demanded the film be withdrawn with a public apology.
But months went by with no real progress on the case. The film came out in America, and was scheduled for a summer release in England in 1933.
At about that time, Irina met the famous American lawyer Fanny Holtzmann in the south of France. Despite dropping out of high school, Fanny had earned a law degree in night school at Fordham University. While she studied, she worked in a law firm whose clients were mostly actors and writers. The minute she passed the bar exam in 1923, she had over 100 clients already signed up.
Newspapers around the world printed stories about her work on behalf of famous Hollywood clients, including Fred Astaire.
When his sister retired from their dance duo, leaving him out of work, it was Fanny who suggested the studio pair him with Ginger Rogers. Over the next decade, she became almost as big a star as her clients, befriending everyone from studio boss Louis B. Mayer to the Duchess of Rutland.
Irina told Fanny about the movie, and said Felix wanted to talk to her. So they all met in Paris, but because Felix didn’t speak very good English and Fanny didn’t speak Russian or much French, they had trouble communicating effectively. So Felix sent Fanny to see Irina’s mother, Grand Duchess Xenia, in Windsor.
So Fanny went to see Xenia, who spoke perfect English. As an added bonus, Xenia’s cousins – King George V and Queen Mary – dropped in for tea. Queen Mary couldn’t resist asking if Fanny knew Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and John Gilbert. She did, of course, and the conversation went so well that George and Mary invited her up to Windsor Castle. The meeting had been a test, and Fanny passed with flying colors.
Fanny warned Xenia that MGM had deep pockets and their case could drag on for quite a while. But Xenia had full confidence in her. “My dear, I foresee a great victory,” she said. (Berkman, 10) But because there was already a fair amount of publicity surrounding the movie, Fanny and Xenia decided on a code name – whenever Xenia called Fanny, she was to use the name “Lady Snooks” to try and keep nosy telephone operators from eavesdropping. (Berkman, 140)
As her next step, Fanny contacted an MGM representative to see if they were interested in settling. The answer was no. The story was clearly fiction, they said, plus they had signed releases from “former court figures of the period” (Berkman, 143).
But behind the scenes, MGM must have been a little worried. Before the movie premiered in England, they made a few cuts, including removing the seduction scene and Natasha’s line, “I have not the right to be your wife.”
Meanwhile, Fanny arranged a private screening of the movie for herself and Felix. Afterward, she thought their best hope for a win came from the prologue that said this film depicted real people.
With the movie about to come out in England, Xenia and George talked about what they should do.
Because Fanny was American, she couldn’t try a case in England. But King George’s personal solicitors refused to take the case. “We’d be laughed out of court,” said one of them. (Berkman, 144) Plus, they didn’t want to expose the royal family to the press coverage a trial would generate.
So Fanny figured she had to go straight to the top of the food chain. She called Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM.
He agreed to settle and told her MGM’s vice-president and general counsel in New York would handle it. But that guy categorically refused to pay, despite Louis B. Mayer’s request.
Fanny realized the case would have to go to trial, either in the U.S. or England. England would be better, since Irina had family there – plus, the British legal system took libel and privacy laws more seriously than in America.
To pursue the case in England, Irina would need both a barrister (a senior lawyer who would appear in court) and a law firm, who would handle the paperwork. First, Fanny chose the law firm. But their representative, Harold Brooks, told Fanny he didn’t think they had a case because there was no precedent for a libel suit about a movie. “I don’t follow precedent,” Fanny said. “I establish it.” (Berkman, 151)
As Irina’s barrister, she chose Sir Patrick Hastings, well-known as England’s best cross-examiner.
Hastings had a few misgivings, though. He believed the movie characters were “entirely different” from Irina and Felix. To make things worse, the entire case rested on what was essentially a murder confession. He later wrote, “…it was a terrible responsibility to put a witness into the box to give evidence that he had been guilty of such an act…” (33) Not surprisingly, he said he took the case with “feelings of considerable anxiety.” (33)
Now that her team was all set, Fanny filed paperwork suing MGM for defamation in America and England, with pre-emptive paperwork filed in Germany, France, Italy, and Austria. In the American suit, she asked for a whopping $2,000,000 in damages for Irina.
MGM’s response was predictable – they denied everything. They also demanded Irina post a $5,000 bond, as security against future legal costs. According to Fanny’s nephew, that money – along with Irina’s initial legal fees – came from Buckingham Palace.
Behind the scenes, Fanny and Sir Patrick Hastings did their best to strategize and prepare. But before the trial began, Fanny left the country. She didn’t want to bring any more publicity to a case that might embarrass the British royal family.
But even after her departure, the case made headlines worldwide.
When asked to comment, Ethel Barrymore told The New York Times, “I have never seen the film right through. My sympathies are with the Youssoupoffs, whom I have known personally for some years.” (February 28, 1934)
The stage was set for a sensational trial.
Stranger Than Fiction
The trial opened on February 27, 1934. Crowds of interested spectators jostled for position outside the courtroom, hoping to push their way inside. But the gallery was already full of eager observers, including Lady Diana Cooper, the daughter of Fanny’s friend, the Duchess of Rutland.
The judge, Sir Horace Avory, had a strange nickname – “Acid Drop.” He was referred to as a hanging judge, and in his younger days, had prosecuted Oscar Wilde.
Reporters described Irina as she took her seat in the front of the courtroom.
She wore a black hat and coat, with violets pinned to her fur collar. A short veil covered her eyes. Her fingers, they noted, were covered with rings and she wore a string of pearls as well as pearl earrings.
To get thing started, Sir Patrick Hastings made the opening argument for her case. Afterward, the jury adjourned to watch the movie. Then Hastings called Irina to the stand.
His questions were short and to the point, designed to solidify Natasha as Irina in the jury’s mind. For example, Irina testified that during the years the movie depicted, 1913-1916, the tsar had no other young, unmarried niece. And in the movie, Natasha had worn a nurse’s outfit in 1916, similar to one Irina had worn in real life.
Then it was the other side’s turn to cross-examine her.
MGM’s barrister, Sir William Jowitt, said that if the role of Princess Natasha was so libelous, surely her friends would have written to her to tell her about it. But when he asked if that had indeed happened, Irina replied, “Nobody ever writes to me and I never answer letters.” (Napley, 100)
Well, so much for that approach.
Next, Jowitt tried to prove that Irina was in it for the money, not to restore her reputation. Because Fanny had already asked MGM about a settlement, Jowitt thought he had her.
But Irina testified that she didn’t know Fanny had done that, and it hadn’t been at her request. Irina was a rock – she was calm and steadfast as she repeated that her main motivation was to have the film pulled, not to make a buck. When Jowitt asked her if she knew that MGM had already made cuts to the film, she had the perfect reply: “But the harm was done already; it had been shown before,” she said. (Napley, 107)
On day two of the proceedings, Irina was back on the witness stand. This time, Jowitt tried to highlight the differences between real life and the movie. He had her confirm that she had not introduced Rasputin to court, as Natasha had in the movie. Then he asked her: “Do you not think it is rather far-fetched and ridiculous to try and assign an historical counterpart to every character in the film?” And once again, she had the perfect answer: “Well, they are historical characters in the film,” she replied. (Napley, 113)
Later, Irina’s barrister described her testimony and cross-examination like this: “Princess Youssupoff was the realization of an advocate’s dream. Throughout a long and somewhat painful ordeal, her demeanour never changed; she displayed neither indignation nor distress, and she answered every question without hesitation and with unfailing courtesy, although some of the suggestions made to her might well have provoked an outburst.” (Hastings, 34)
But the line between truth and fiction was getting blurred once more, both inside and outside the courtroom. A New York Times article summarizing Irina’s testimony referred to her husband as “Prince Chegodieff Youssoupoff.” (February 28, 1934)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I couldn’t have made that up if I tried.
Next, Irina’s barrister, Hastings, called his second witness: Felix. In 10 short minutes, he quickly confirmed elements of Felix’s life that were similar to the movie, including the name of his home, the Moika Palace.
Day three began with Jowitt’s cross-examination of Felix. He went through the murder in extreme detail, trying to show the jury more differences between real life and the movie. At one point, Jowitt referenced a line in Felix’s book about offering Rasputin the snacks that hadn’t been poisoned. He was trying to make the point that Felix was incredibly nervous and didn’t know what he was doing – and, by implication, that his account of the murder was thus unreliable. But Felix had the best response regarding his nerves: “This is quite natural. I am not, how you say, professional murderer.” (Berkman, 154)
I giggled at that part.
Overall, Felix’s cross-examination took a whopping 36 hours as Jowitt tried to show that Rasputin’s death had been more of a group effort than Felix’s sole doing. And while that may be true, it didn’t really help his case because the average person on the street who watched the movie probably didn’t know all the arcane details of who shot Rasputin where and how many times.
Later, Irina’s barrister complimented Felix on how calm and steady he was while describing such horrific events. He wrote, “It was an awful story he had to tell, but he told it without passion, and indeed without emotion of any kind…Throughout his long ordeal the Prince stood like a figure carved in stone.” (Hastings, 36)
When Felix’s cross-examination ended, Irina’s lawyer called six more witnesses, including her brother Nikita, all of whom testified that as soon as they saw the movie, they knew Chegodieff was Felix and Natasha was Irina.
Finally, it was Jowitt’s turn to call MGM’s witnesses. And it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Irina’s legal team had made one big mistake. In the initial pleading for her case, the lawyer who’d written it claimed defamation since the movie portrayed Natasha as “seduced or a mistress of Rasputin.” (Napley, 149)
So Jowitt aimed to make a clear distinction between being “seduced or a mistress” and being raped. He said that if the jury believed Natasha had been raped, they had to find for MGM because that meant she had not been seduced or a mistress.
And even if the character had been raped, Jowitt argued that it wasn’t defamatory since the female victim was not guilty of “unchastity or adultery.” (Aquino, 19)
Once Hastings realized his team had made a mistake, he asked the judge to amend the language of the original pleading. The judge allowed it, potentially saving Irina’s case.
On days three and four, Jowitt called six witnesses, some of whom were affiliated with the old imperial court. They all testified that they never thought the movie characters represented Felix and Irina. Jowitt spent a lot of time trying to show how they more closely resembled others, including Grand Duke Dmitri and Anna Vyrubova, a friend of Empress Alexandra.
When Jowitt wrapped up his questioning, the jury watched the movie one more time in preparation for the closing arguments.
Surprisingly, no one brought up the press clippings and interviews where both the studio and John Barrymore had straight-up said that the character of Prince Paul was based on Felix. And no one subpoenaed the director, screenwriter, or producer to testify as to their intentions. Irina’s lawyer did make the point that of 100 newspapers that reviewed the movie in England, five of them suggested Chegodieff was really Felix. (Napley, 179)
On Monday, March 5, 1934, a crowd swarmed the courtroom in anticipation of the verdict.
Lady Diana Cooper and the Countess of Oxford and Asquith watched from the gallery. In the front of the room, Irina looked nervous and fidgeted with her lace handkerchief.
In his closing argument for MGM, Jowitt said the Prince Paul character was more like Grand Duke Dmitri than Felix. And the Natasha character wasn’t like Irina at all because she was a lady-in-waiting who’d introduced Rasputin to the court. It was common knowledge that Irina had never met Rasputin, so no reasonable person could confuse the two women.
Next, it was Irina’s barrister’s turn. Hastings reiterated that Felix was the only man internationally known for killing Rasputin and Irina was his wife. The movie had depicted the man who killed Rasputin and his fiancée. He didn’t say it, but I’m sure he was thinking, “Come on, people, connect the dots here.”
Plus, the movie’s prologue had said this was a story about real people, some of whom were still alive. Since Rasputin, Nicholas, Alexandra and their son were all dead, Felix and Irina were the only people in the story left alive. Who else could MGM have meant to depict?
It was a question MGM couldn’t answer.
“Monsters Out of My Head”
After the closing arguments, the jury of nine men and three women withdrew to deliberate. Felix and Irina stayed in their seats at the front of the courtroom. They didn’t talk. They didn’t move. They just sat there for the full deliberation, which was either one or two hours, depending on which source you believe.
Hastings later described the agonizing wait: “In this particular case my anxiety was accentuated. It meant so much to the Princess. She had been compelled to lay bare the most tragic episode of her whole life, and to lose her case would be intolerable…” (38)
When the jury returned, the foreman announced that they found for Irina and awarded her damages of £25,000 pounds. A collective gasp echoed in the courtroom at the size of the award. This was a huge amount of money at the time – the same amount would have paid the wages of a skilled tradesman for 48 years. (NationalArchives.gov.uk)
Upon hearing the verdict, Irina finally smiled. She turned to Hastings and thanked him for helping her.
Some jury members had actually wanted to give her double that amount, and only changed their minds when they realized more suits were pending.
Felix and Irina left the court through a private door to avoid the crowd outside. They drove to their solicitors’ office, where she drank tea and chain smoked from a long amber cigarette holder. According to a newspaper report, she called her mom, Grand Duchess Xenia, and said, “Twenty five thousand pounds damages. We are all so relieved that it is over, and so delighted with the results…” (Belfast News-Letter, March 6, 1934)
When asked what she was going to do next, she said she was going to stay with her mom. Say it with me now: aww…
She told another reporter: “These are the first moments of joy that have been given me for very many weary years….I never doubted I should win – how could I? But I am so very tired of having our misery and our private affairs held up to the public. I never go into society now. My recreation seems to be worry. Today’s verdict is the first ray of light I have had. In spare moments during the case, I have been drawing and painting monsters out of my head. I hope I shall be able to sell them – perhaps for two guineas each…I shall guard every penny of this £25,000 and put it in a trust fund for my daughter and her children, so that she and they shall never know the poverty I have endured.” (Napley, 196-7)
Predictably, MGM wasn’t happy about the damages. They filed an appeal, claiming the award was excessive and that Irina had “suffered no loss of reputation in the eyes of her friends.” (Times, July 13, 1934)
It didn’t work.
The appeals court upheld the original verdict.
One of the appeals court judges – Lord Justice Scrutton – didn’t think too much of MGM’s argument that saying a woman had been raped wasn’t defamatory. He wrote, “I really have no language to express my opinion of that argument…It takes some courage to argue it.” (Aquino, 20; Napley, 198)
Scrutton also said that had MGM’s prologue said that everything depicted was fictitious, his decision might have been different.
To settle the rest of Irina’s claims in other countries, MGM offered another huge amount of money. Their ledgers record it as $185,000, but it’s generally reported that the real amount was between $750,000 and $1.1 million. (Napley, 202; Erickson, 372) Fanny Holtzmann herself said the settlement was even bigger than MGM would admit to. (Berkman, 161)
Apparently, the studio had an off-the-books contingency fund, and they may have pulled the difference out of there. Either way, this was one of the highest amounts ever awarded from a libel lawsuit up to that point. (Times, August 11, 1934) MGM also had to issue a public apology affirming that the Princess Natasha character was fictional.
The Yusupovs got a very large check on August 9, 1934.
There was a victory party at Fanny’s London apartment, where the guest list included Hollywood royalty and British aristocrats, including the duchess of Rutland, Rebecca West, Sophie Tucker, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Later, Irina’s lawyer wrote that this case “contained more elements of human tragedy than any other civil action I have ever known.” (Hastings, 26)
To avoid any further legal trouble, MGM changed the movie’s prologue. It replaced the original text with this: “The events and characters in this film are fictional and any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental.”
Other Hollywood producers began to insist their films carry the same disclaimer. No one else wanted to pay out what MGM had had to pay out. So today, that disclaimer is standard operating procedure – even when the movie is about a real-life person.
And that’s not the only lasting legacy we have. Irina’s case is still taught in law school today. It was the first libel case won through what’s essentially a murder confession.
I’ll leave you with one more tidbit. After everything had wrapped up, Fanny went to visit Xenia at Frogmore. Her son, Prince Nikita, brought Fanny an autograph book and asked her to sign it. She was so well-known, he said, that the Duke of York’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, wanted her autograph.
If you’re interested in watching the movie, it’s available to rent digitally on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, and more. It apparently underwent yet another change after the conclusion of this case. When I rented it, it didn’t have a prologue at all. Instead, the fictional characters were noted in the beginning.
I’ve posted more screenshots on Patreon, with some of the questionable costume choices, outrageous moments, and more.
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Sources for Irina Yusupova and her MGM Lawsuit
Books & Articles
In alphabetical order by author’s last name
- Here Lies the Heart by Mercedes de Acosta
- Truth and Lives on Film: The Legal Problems of Depicting Real Persons and Events in a Fictional Medium by John Aquino
- Memories: An Autobiography by Ethel Barrymore
- The Lady and the Law by Edward O. Berkman
- Prince Felix Yusupov by Christopher Dobson
- Any Resemblance to Actual Persons: The Real People Behind 400+ Fictional Movie Characters by Hal Erickson
- Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings
- Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973 by Kim R. Holston
- The Man Who Killed Rasputin by Greg King
- Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler
- Education of a Princess by Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia
- Rasputin in Hollywood by Sir David Napley
- The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky
- Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image by Harlow Robinson
- “THE 6TH ACADEMY AWARDS | 1934”
- Time Magazine: “Foreign News: Tears for Acid Drop”
- International Encyclopedia of the First World War: “War Losses (Russian Empire)” by Alexandre Sumpf
- Daily News (NY)
- The Dayton Daily News
- The Index-Journal
- The Indianapolis Star
- Kinematograph Weekly
- The New York Times
- The Sphere
- St. Joseph News
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- Header Image: Irina Yusupova by Boasson & Eggler, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. MGM Studios by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Film strips by Pietro Jeng from Pexels.
- Music, post audio: All via Artlist.io.
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